November 8, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Proving the Obvious

The well-known IgNobel Prizes are awarded each year for silly, useless research projects (see Improbable Research).  There seem to be a lot of contenders that may never win the prize, but get reported anyway.  One can only wonder why the reporters aren’t putting these on the funny pages:

  1. Well duh:  Science Daily reported that serial cohabiters are less likely to marry.  The article contained highfalutin jargon and ended in a moral appeal: “Understanding the myriad motivations of cohabiters may be more important than ever, especially if cyclical serial cohabiting couples with children have increased among recent cohorts as a percentage of all cohabitations.”  Maybe they just need to go to church.
  2. Bully pulpit:  Bullies seem to get pleasure out of seeing others in pain, another article in Science Daily reported.  In case you didn’t know that, researchers at the University of Chicago produced fMRI scans to prove it.  One fMRI image not taken was when the bully saw the principal coming with a big paddle.
  3. Male egos:  Guys tend to become body-conscious when looking at fashionable women, a communications expert at University of Missouri discovered.  One can only wonder what her college-age male subjects were thinking when she showed them various magazines of sexy women as part of her science project.  All in the name of science; she even had a control, watching their reactions when they looked at magazines of male models.

Some researchers seem to think that their fellow human beings can be treated like lab rats (the Ratomorphic Fallacy; see reductionism).  Typically they ignore morals completely and expect that human behavior is reducible entirely to genes and neurons.  They might get consistent results, but does that justify the conclusions?  It may be that non-material causes are vastly more significant while still giving reproducible results.  And the ethics of putting human subjects in compromising situations, even if they are willing, cannot be ignored.

What is the message you give a serial cohabiter when you study his behavior in sterile laboratory terms?  That it is normal; he’s just born that way.  A bully getting his brain waves photographed gets no punishment.  Should our dear female researcher at U Mo be allowed to extend her research into the male response to porn?
    Let’s think about pure research.  Pure research is often justified passionately by scientists, and for good reason: some of our most valuable discoveries have come when researchers did not have a goal in mind.  There are many historical cases of this.  A typical example offered is that a researcher studying some fungus in a rain forest might discover a cure for cancer.  This is all fine and good, but is it a license to study anything and everything?  A little reflection shows that this can become absurd.  Scientist Sam, let’s say, has spent 20 years studying the cries of animals when he steps on their feet.  He’s catalogued the cry of the sheep, goat, beaver, muskrat, hedgehog, guinea pig, human child and truck driver (and he has the scars to prove it).  For each of these observations, he has recorded the voiceprint on a sonogram and taken measurements in decibels.  Next, he wants to add the lion, bear and alligator to his growing collection.  He also has plans to compare the responses on different continents and do each animal again as a juvenile and an adult.  Researcher Ralph, meantime, is cataloguing every sand grain in the Sahara with calipers and a mass spectrometer.  You get the point.
    The silly stories above beg numerous questions.  Do we really need a scientist to tell us the obvious?  Can scientists sometimes miss the most important causal factors?  Is sterile science the only way, or the best way, to gain understanding?  Can scientific explanations become absurdly simplistic?  Does research on human subjects carry an implied moral message?  When does research on human subjects transgress the boundaries of propriety?
    Pure research is valuable, but don’t fall for the fallacy that it should be unrestricted.  No scientist ever approaches a body of data without assumptions.  Every research project implies a motivation.  And not everything doable is worth doing.  A good sermon on faithfulness is worth a ton of “scientific” papers about cohabitation.  Good parenting is worth a decade of “scientific” research on bullies.  And sometimes sexual attraction in a test tube just loses something essential.  “What is this thing called love?” may be one of those questions science can never answer without destroying it.

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Categories: Dumb Ideas, Human Body

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